Book Reviews

Review Published in BIBLIO

A second life

Navtej Sarna

Kalikatha Via Bypass. By Alka Saraogi,Rupa & Co. New Delhi. 2002 .295 pp., Rs 295

Somewhere towards the end of this loosely structured novel, there is an introspective piece: “The stories of this earth cannot be counted, for every man has a story of his own inner world. Or to put it more aptly, every man has stories of his inner worlds and the inner worlds too are innumerable.” Alka Saraogi’s first novel, much acclaimed when it came out in Hindi, is about myriad little stories that belong to these inner worlds, reminiscent of crowded bylanes that move off at impossible angles from central avenues.

These stories are triggered off by a chance event. Kishore Babu, in the evening of his life, has a bypass operation. An unintended side effect of the operation is a lump at the back of his head. Perhaps due to that lump or perhaps due to improved blood circulation or perhaps due to the fact that the bypass does not just open up the arteries that supply blood but also hidden zones of the heart where memories, desires and dreams reside, Kishore Babu is thereafter a different man. He takes to the streets, walking aimlessly amidst the bustling big city around him. Feeling with renewed intensity the beautiful, edgy texture of life. Sim ultaneously he begins to devour the diaries of his ancestors. In the process he begins to dig into his own history, the history of the city whose streets his walks, and the political history of the country to which that city belongs. Is this just a ploy by the author to tell the stories that she has to, the stories from the protagonist’s past and present, stories of his friends, his ancestors, the Marwari community, the streets and squares of Kolkata? Of is it the desire of an old man to see a different colour of life, to feel the salt of excitement once again by reaching beyond the real? “What is real in not enough to live for. Everybody needs a sky to fly.” In any case, Kishore Babu “pushes his story further and further back in time as if somebody had would his clock to move anti-clockwise.”

As the stories unravel, several frameworks merge. The story of a city touched by the hope of Bengali Renaissance, then caught in the freedom movement in the 1940s forms the backdrop, with the drama of the Quit India Movement, the riots, the Partition, the political cleavage personified by Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. And then further back in time, the memories search out the glory of Siraj-ud-daula, the coming to the city of the Marwaris like “migratory birds”, the ambivalent attitudes of the colonized towards the colonizers (are they teaching us, taking care of us, or simply sucking our blood?). Against this backdrop, Saraogi tells the story of the Marwaris, a community it seems, charged with taking care of its reputation – “The problem is being a Marwari! All other communities can do what they please. But Marwaris see their names being blighted for this or for that. “Kishore Babu’s ancestors come alive, caught in circles of ritual, blind belief, struggling with issues such as the proper status of women of the lives of widows of just cherishing the simply joys of life, like going out to eat dinner on the Victoria Maidan, sitting on the grass under a full moon.

Kishore Babu’s own life story winds around in these different frameworks. The story of one man or a political metaphor for the country:

“Kishore Babu has lived three lives in one. He had led one kind of life till the country won independence, when he was twenty-two. Then began his second life- life of full fifty years. This second life did not bear the slightest reflection of the first. Now, in his new third life after his heart bypass, he looks on his second life as if were a new birth. In a way one could say these fifty-years of his life have been rather like the fifty years of the sovereign democratic state of India, which haven’t retained even a vestige or sediment, even the slightest lingering flavour, of our fight for freedom.”

And if it is political metaphor, what bypass will bring back to the country the idealism, the rush of blood, the first flush of freedom?

Coincidences are the key to the story, for what appears to be a coincidence “ may also be a part of a great incomprehensible design that life follows”. There is the coincidence that Kishore and his two friends Shantanu and Amolak, who from political and personal foils for his thoughts, were all born on the 1st January 1925. And when they would all turn 75, the time they should all be going into sanyas and meet up not near the “voluminous bronze statue of queen Victoria” as they had promised each other but near the “lean, dwarfish figure of Rishi Aurobindo” that had replaced it, it would also be the turn of the millennium, thus providing a neat and dramatic moment to end the narrative. Not that one should find fault with the use of coincidence; properly employed they form a useful peg to pin the historical landscape and show the whimsical nature in which human lives are tossed around against it.

Alka Saraogi has chosen a wide canvas and in the end, she manages to cover it with fitful success. The presence of a narrator who appears for very occasional touches is neither effective nor necessary. Nor is the ploy that at least a part of the story is actually being read by Kishore’s wife; her presence is not strong enough to make this an interesting twist. The book would have worked well enough without these experiments. At times, Saraogi also seems to forget that the rush of thoughts and stories cutting across time zones and changing points of view may seem perfectly fine for the writer but are not always easy material for the reader, especially for a reader in a hurry. A stronger element of chronological continuity, at least within sections, would have produced a more reader-friendly narrative.

Finally, it must be an odd demand on an author, and a not too easy one, to write a book in one language and then re-do it in another. How does one feel the same impulses, translate the colours of the same imagery first in one language and then in another with different idioms, different metaphors, different humour? Not surprisingly, the translation is perhaps the greatest constraining factor of this novel, and on occasion, it falters: “The just-washed roads buy the holy Ganga water.”

Such quibbles aside, the fact that Alka Saraogi has managed to turn her successful Hindi novel herself into an impressive one in English is in itself a highly commendable feat.